Wednesday 31 October 2012

Kayaking Loch Laggan

Loch Laggan is in the central highlands between Speyside and  Lochaber. I drive the A86 road along the shore frequently on my way to and from the west coast of Scotland and have often thought that it would provide a good day's paddling.

In the winter the loch can freeze over and so an autumn day with the bonus of the woodland colour on the shore seemed like a good bet.  The forecast was for almost no wind and good visibility.  Emerging from thick fog at the north east end of the loch to a chilly and quite strong breeze was unexpected.

I launched from near the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve car park at Aberarder and headed south west down the loch with the wind at my back.  I thought that this way the sun wouldn't be in my eyes too much as I made an anticlockwise circuit of the loch.

The colours of the woods fringing the loch were really rich and vibrant, the mix of birch, rowan pine and larch each adding their own shade to the whole.  Remnants of the morning mist were still hanging in some of the lower corries.

Above the shore the flanks of Creag Meagaidh drop steeply towards the loch.  I could hear stags roaring occasionally, the rut is still in full swing. When I was last on this hill we had a full-on winter day with driving snow, today was a lot different!

I found a small bay sheltered from the breeze and landed for first luncheon - a cup of hot tea and some cake was just the ticket.  A yellow boat in a yellow bay, perhaps I should have eaten a banana to keep the colour theme going?

At the bottom (south west) end of the loch it's possible to continue through the meandering River Spean to  a lower part of the loch which is damed for a hydro electric scheme.  This would have been a noe-way trip though s the flow was too strong to paddle back up to Loch Laggan. 

Instead I turned near Moy Lodge and began paddling back up towards the head of the loch on the quiet sothern shore.  The glacial origins of Laggan are plain to see, lots of smoothed bedrock bearing striations from the passage of the ice.

There are boulders left in place too, just as they settled when the ice melted.  The wind had conveniently dropped just as I began to paddle against it and my paddle was a relaxing one accompanied by birdsong and the sounds of the red deer rut.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Golden October

Driving to the central Highlands, the sun rose as I crossed the Lecht hill road.  By the time I reached  Bridge of Brown the low sun was flooding the valley mist with a gorgeous golden light.  The effect was quite fleeting, soon afterward the light became harder and the mist dazzling white.

As I continued my drive, I saw a Brocken Spectre as the sun threw the car's shadow onto the mist in the valley bottom.

A really beautiful morning to be out.

Friday 26 October 2012

As I cam' in by Fiddichside..

Auchindoun Castle lies off the Dufftown to Rhynie road in Morayshire.  We've driven past many times and recently took some time to visit the castle properly.  From the road you just get a glimpse of a gaunt tower, but from the top of the short walk to the site the scale of the ruin becomes readily apparent.

The castle is in the care of Historic Scotland and has recently undergone extensive work to make the ruins safe and allow access inside the outer wall. It seems to have had a consistently violent history even in the context of the bloody feuds of 15th and 16th century Scotland.  It seems not to have been held by anybody for very long, and slightly unusually it was bought and sold during its history.  Mostly associated with the Earls of Huntly, Auchindoun dominates the approaches to Speyside by Fiddichside and to an extent Glen Rinnes

An old song, "The Burning of Auchindoun", commemorates one incident in the castle's long story when it was attacked in 1592 by Clan Mackintosh in retaliation for Huntly's murder of "The Bonny Earl o' Moray".  Truly turbulent times....

Auchindoun was clearly a very grand design; and what surprised us was the amount of the structure which is still in existence.  Here part of the outer walls and a gated entrance with signs of additional buildings inside the wall.

 The main tower commands a great view and would have dominated the surrounding countryside. Parts of the outer earthworks are thought to have been a much earlier hillfort, possibly neolithic and in turn, Pictish.

The main tower still has upper floors intact and portions of vaulted ceilings, and there is a basement carved out of the bedrock of the knoll on which it stands.

Today the castle is a peaceful if dramatic place with views over the whisky country of Morayshire.  Control of trade probably played a big part in the choice of site and with the close proximity of present-day distilleries like Mortlach, Knockando, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Glenlivet to name but a few it would be trade worth controlling today!

Auchindoun was facinating and an unexpected gem with real atmosphere; it's somewhere we'll no doubt revisit - maybe next time with a dram in hand.....

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Kerloch evening

Having walked around to the south west side of Kerloch, my route turned towards the summit via the Builg, part of the Mounth path of the same name.  Part of this was quite boggy and I was glad to reach the forest road climbing towards the shoulder and drier ground.  It's a steady climb of about 350 metres to the summit, mostly through tall forests which conceal the view until quite near the top.

But what views!  Kerloch is just 534m/1752 ft high but being isolated above large areas of lower ground has absolutely huge views in every direction.  To the north east Durris and Fetteresso forests stretched away in a carpet of dark green; to the east the haze just permitted a view of the city of Aberdeen and the North Sea.

But the best views were in the south and west.  The late afternoon sun was low on the horizon and the mist already beginning to re-form in the glens of the Mounth.

The swelling heather domes enclosing the Angus Glens stretched away, the haze producing a soft focus effect.  I lingered on the summit for a good half hour just enjoying the changing light and an almost complete absence of sound.  I still had a good distance to go to get back to my starting point so all too soon it was time to head off; this time taking the direct route north towards Feughside on a good track which joined the Stock Mounth track.

Sunset came and went on my walk out, the few clouds briefly fired with pink and then gold.  Reaching the road, all that remained was a 2km walk back up the hill to the car as darkness settled.

What might have been a short walk "there and back" to the summit turned out to have been 28 kilometres and a full 8 hours, and what a super day it had been.

Monday 22 October 2012

Circle of gold

On a beautiful autumn day I set out to climb Kerloch,  a heathery dome rising above the forests south of Banchory in Aberdeenshire.  A straight up-and-down ascent would have made for a short day; it was a lovely day so I planned a longer route which would take me almost completely around the base of the hill before climbing over it on my way back.

I started from a small forest car-park near to the Mulloch stone circle, also known as the Nine Stanes.  The circle is just off the road in a forest plantation and is one of the recumbent circles which are a distinctive form of monument found the north east of Scotland. The Nine Stanes circle is one of three quite closely grouped monuments and is about 3,500 years old.  Although now in the forest, it would have commanded a wide view and was probably used in part as a lunar calendar.

 The northern side of Kerloch is mostly open moorland with wide views; the distinctive tor on Clachnaben stands out in the view to the south west.  After crossing the moorland approach I entered the forest to the north east of Kerloch, planning to link forest roads and footpaths to make a large clockwise arc around to the south west of the summit.

A feature of the forestry plantations hereabouts is that the spruce blocks are edged with larch (Larix decidua), some obviously planted and others seemingly self-seeded.

I've always been fond of larches, a deciduous conifer which turns the most brilliant shades in the autumn before dropping its needles.  The branches were glowing in the bright sunshine, the trees forming a circle of gold around the hillside, edging the deep green of the spruces and the rich plum shades of the higher moors.

In places this "circle of gold" was simply dazzling; the intensity of the colour changing the light completely.

There were other bright colours in evidence too; in the warm sunshine a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was feeding on a late flowering Ragwort

Several sections of my route used rights of way.  Scotland doesn't have public footpaths in the sense that England and Wales do, but rights of way are often marked by the Scottish Rights of Way Society; and many of these have usage going back many centuries.  I used sections of the Stock Mounth and Builg Mounth paths, both mounth roads once used for cattle droving, trade and smuggling.

After nearly six hours of walking, I'd made my way right around the south of Kerloch and now was able to climb to the summit from almost exactly the opposite point to which I'd started - a strange but somehow satisfying way to climb a hill!

Sunday 21 October 2012

A glorious autumn morning

Following a run of cold, grey and wet weather it was so good to wake to a bright morning.  A light frost coated the leaves of the beech tree in our garden.

The view across the Howe of Alford with the low morning sun silvering the mist was very fine.  It was to be a glorious autumn day.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Falling over on a Stag night

I recently did an overnight kayak trip in Outer Loch Torridon, setting out from Shieldaig on a bright afternoon.  Cloudbanks away to the northwest looked a bit ominous, but the weather in Loch Shieldaig (from the Norse Sild Vik - Herring Bay) was fine.  As things were to turn out, I should have made the most of the sunshine.....  Some days or trips just end up being a succession of challenges, and this was one of those occasions.

My destination was the former Youth Hostel at Craig, which was turned over to the Mountain Bothies Association in 2006 having been decommissioned as a Youth Hostel in 2003.  Having arrived at Shieldaig later than I'd planned I hurried through loading the boat which resulted in it feeling a little "down by the head" and made for hard work paddling the two hours or so towards the bothy.  As I headed out from the shelter of Loch Shieldaig (which is actually the middle part of Loch Torridon) the sea got up a bit but nothing too concerning.  The wind had swung to the northwest and the clouds had become very dark looking and heading towards me.

All the photographs below were taken on the following morning.


This is the boulder beach below Craig at near high water approximately mid way through the neap/spring cycle.  When I arrived (30 minutes prior to sunset) it was near to low water and a small swell of about 0.5 metres was washing directly onto the beach. I also arrived at the same time as a torrential rainstorm. The landing with a heavy boat was a little tricky and I struggled a bit to stop the boat from broaching as I tried to minimise the amount of banging on the boulders.

Having dragged the boat clear of the water on barnacle covered boulders I started to unload the contents into bags to get my kit above the HW line before moving the boat.  The rain was absolutely lashing down at this point which probably contributed to the next mishap.

I moved up the beach to a point where the barnacle covered rocks gave way to smooth and rounded sandstone boulders about the size of melons.  Immediately I stepped onto this part of the beach I took a crashing fall, my feet competely whipped from under me by the lethally slippery boulders which were covered in a green sheen of weed.  It was several minutes before I could move, such was the impact of the fall and I consider that I was pretty lucky to have escaped with just a bruised forearm.  The rain had now reached a real intensity and my kit was scattered about on the rocks.  I gathered everything (including, sadly, a broken bottle of wine...) and moved carefully up the beach before returning to move the boat.  This was a really frustrating job; I didn't dare pick it up to go across the slippery zone of the beach and ended up dragging it whilst sitting on the ground.  Eventually everything was above the HW mark and I could set off to find the bothy.

In hillwalking lore, bothy doors rank as some of the most difficult targets to navigate to, and Craig proved no exception.  I'd taken so long to sort out the mess on the beach that it was now fairly dark and still raining, though thankfully not as heavily.  The ground had become very flooded and I set off up the hill to try to locate the bothy which was about a kilometre away.  The building lies in a a dip above a river, which is itself in a bit of a gorge.  Below the bothy and stretching almost to the beach is a straggling wood of birch and willow.  It all made for an interesting navigational exercise!  Eventually the door was located and unsurprisingly I was the only occupant.

I quickly got my stove sorted and made a cup of tea, then got the woodburner lit, mentally thanking the previous occupants for leaving some dry wood.  Candles were lit and as the downstairs room warmed up I took off my paddling kit and went upstairs to get a sleeping spot chosen.  At this point I realised that I'd left my sleeping bag and Thermarest back at the boat, a kilometre down the wet and dark hillside - it really was one of those days!

Back into wet kit, a log onto the woodburner to keep it going, candles in every window to aid my return and off I went back down the hill.  Half way down I smelled burning and my headtorch went out.  A wiggle of the wires and it came back on; fortunately I had a small reserve headtorch in my pocket.  Having retrieved the missing kit I slogged back up to the bothy and back out of the wet kit.  An examination of the headtorch revealed that the cable insulation had broken down allowing a short circuit.  After seven years heavy use, I suppose I can hardly complain.


The main room of Craig has an impressive celtic mural, echoed on the door and window lintels.  It's a real 5 star bothy with real bedframes upstairs and a bucket flush loo at the back.  I got a meal cooked and was able to chuckle at the day's events.  No wine, but a warm room and a hot chocolate drink made a good nightcap.

 After the rain stopped, it became obvious that the Red Deer rut was in full swing; several stags were roaring on the hillside beyond the bothy.  Late in the evening the rain started again and things quietened down.  I bedded down in the smallest of the upstairs rooms (the small rooflight window in this picure) and dropped into a sound sleep.

Sleep was shattered about 3am when a very large stag (the deepest one of several I'd heard earlier)  roared just a few feet from the bothy door.  Although I knew instantly what it was, it's fair to say it gave me a start - at a distance the roar is impressive, this close it was a primal shockwave of a sound.  After I'd gone to the window with a torch he moved away a little and all the roaring subsided a bit.  It took a little longer for my heart-rate to subside and sleep to return though!

Saturday 13 October 2012

The Enchanted Forest 2012

I've blogged about it previously , and we visited The Enchanted Forest again earlier this week with our daughter and two of our grandchildren. This year the theme is "Flow", based around the elements.  Symbols and names for trees in runes, symbols and ancient scripts are at various places around the Faskally Wood.

Met by "Druids", we were taken as a group to the start of the path around the lochan, then visitors can move at their own pace, and are welcome to walk around as many times as they like.  The audio and visual effects are once again of very high quality

And in some places absolutely stunning.  On the evening we visited it was raining quite heavily and misty, which if anything added to the effects.  Wellies and waterproofs enabled even two and three year olds to walk around the whole site and still want more.

Children of all ages were fascinated by the flow of brightly lit water from the top of the bridge over the lochan - it took some time before most could be persuaded to move on!

This unusual display was placed in trees above and around the path, creating a 3D space as the path twists down a short incline.  This year there was also a storyteller in a Yurt along the route (with a magical Unicorn to point the way)

For 2011 the event moved to another site in Pitlochry, but is back "home" at Faskally this year - the tenth event.  In truth, this site would be very hard to surpass - the combination of water, woods and a route of just the right length combine to superb effect.  It's a real community effort and supported by government bodies such as Forest Enterprise and Creative Scotland as well as the town of Pitlochry.

Once again we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and as ever it was especially magical to experience it through the eyes of little ones.  Whether or not you have children with you, the Enchanted Forest is a great evening out in Scotland's elements.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Abernethy paths

Who could resist the lure of walking a path like this one?   Abernethy Forest isn't far from home and has superb walking among the Caledonian pines.  One of Scotland's National Nature Reserves, it's managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Scottish National Heritage (SNH).  Forest specialities such as Red Squirrels, Crested Tits and Capercaillie are found here.

We walked this route from the walkighlands website, starting near Boat of Garten and using a combination of waymarked forest trails and a small section of the Speyside Way.

Wider views are at a premium in forests, and it's enjoyable to concentrate on the smaller, closer landscapes.  The Blaeberry plants had been nearly stripped of berries by birds, but the Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) still had both flowers and berries.

My fungi identification isn't the best, but this large and bright example looks as if it should be toxic!

Part way around our route we came to Loch Garten, one of the chief visitor attarctions in the area due to the nesting ospreys which use the tall pines by the loch.  The RSPB has cameras around the nest during the season and although one can see Ospreys elsewhere locally, the opportunity to watch their family life close up is a great draw.

Garten is very much a forest loch, surrounded by trees and with water stained the colour of coffeee by peat.  On a sunny day the shores of Garten and nearby Loch Mallachie make good picnic spots, one accessible directly from a minor road and one requiring a bit of a walk.

We kept moving though, the clouds approaching from Meall a' Bhuachaille were bringing the next shower.  We walked back into the shelter of the forest to continue a really pleasant walk back to Boat of Garten.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Quoich water

Autumn is a great time to be out and about in woodland.  We drove the short distance to Braemar, then along what must surely be one of the most attractive 15km of road in the country from Braemar past Linn of Dee to the road end near Linn of Quoich. 

We walked through the pinewoods alongside the Quoich Water, rushing clear and fast down from the high corries of Beinn a'Bhuird.  It's the combination of pinewoods and fast flowing rivers which make this part of the Cairngorms special.  At just about any time of the year the smell of the pines is marvellous; only in the deep cold of winter is the scent stifled as the resin slows.

 The Quoich Water flows off granite rocks and so is generally clear rather than peaty, and punctuated by waterfalls and rapids

The woods here are predominantly Caledonian Pine, and a concerted effort by the National Trust for Scotland to regenerate this forest is proving very successful.  Ten years ago there were hardly any young trees as excessive numbers of Red Deer were browsing the seedlings.  NTS took a controversial decision to dramatically reduce deer numbers on the Mar Lodge estate and the results have been impressive.  Regeneration is now healthy and the wood is gaining a spread of tree types and ages like this vibrant Rowan (Sorbus) seedling.  This is not just good for the trees, but also ultimately for the deer which are narurally animals of the forest rather than open moor.  The herd will be healthier and individuals larger as a result of better conditions. One of the sadder sights some years ago was the herds of starving deer on the roadside in late winter.

 One of the popular spots here is the Punchbowl, a natural basin in the rock immediately upstream of the Linn of Quoich (Linn is the name given to a narrow, constricted waterfall). 

The basin was probably formed by water action swirling pebbles around a depression; it's an attractive spot to sit and just enjoy the water and the forest.